It's the first week of college for my son in the US and we're having dinner at the elegant restaurant Husk in Savannah, Georgia with two of his flatmates and one of his flat mates' parents. The menu boasts southern soul food with a cool, modern twist and the drinks list doesn't disappoint either. I catch my son's eye as I order a bourbon based cocktail. 5 days ago, back in Beijing, he would have had a glass of white wine (or a G&T). I decide to use the opportunity to ask my new found American friends what the story is. "What if I ordered him glass of white wine?". Kate tells me that that would be very unwise.
I grew up in Denmark where alcohol was part of our lives from an early age. I personally wasn't allowed to drink until I was 15 but even at that age, I felt that I had some catching up to do. House parties were flooded with the sweetest stuff we could find. Be it Southern Comfort (very apropos), fruit flavoured vermouth or Malibu mixed with Coca Cola (what was wrong with us?). In the home country of 'Probably the best beer in the world' there was obviously never a shortage of beer either. It may sound absurd, but it was rather common for parents to encourage their kids to get drunk for the first time at home. So they were prepared for their first boozy night out on the town.
Coming to America
My son was born in Italy but grew up partly in Belgium, partly in China. There is no legal drinking age in either of the two countries. But in theory you have to be 16 in Belgium to purchase alcohol - and 18 in China.
Since the passing of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act in America in 1984 the legal age for drinking alcohol bas been 21.
The United States is (together with Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Palau and Samoa) the only country in the world where the legal drinking (and purchase age) is 21. The law is stricter only in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Yemen where purchasing and consuming alcohol is illegal.
Although the law is enforced in every US state, I learnt, to my surprise, that some states do allow underage consumption of alcohol.
in 29 states, minors above the age of 18 may drink on private, non alcohol-selling premises, with parental consent.
in 8 states, consumption (but not possession) of alcohol is allowed for underage "kids" on alcohol-selling premises - but still with parental consent.
in 26 states, minors above the age of 18 may be permitted to drink alcohol for religious purposes (for example when drinking wine during a church ceremony).
in 11 states, underage consumption is allowed for educational purposes (for example for students in culinary school).
In other words, the only way to legally drink is in your parents' company, while you're at church or during class at your culinary school.
Taking it too lightly?
I swear that I'm not an alcoholic. I have what I like to call a completely normal relationship with alcohol. It's there when I want it, I normally regret it the next day if I drink too much and I can go weeks without it. A "normal" relationship with alcohol is in my country's DNA. And in that of the whole of Europe. Historically, alcohol has warmed soldiers in the freezing cold, been the glue that kept the party going and sparked conversations and spontaneous folk song singing. We (usually) drink responsibly and have very strict drunk-driving laws.
Exactly the same can be said for the United States.
The difference lies in trusting youngsters with alcohol.
I'm not exactly proud to admit how much the alcohol/no alcohol issue has kept my mind busy over the past few days here in the US - and I'm even less proud to admit that I have been genuinely worried about how my son will adjust to a zero-tolerance alcohol policy (not only in the city where he lives but also on campus and at the dorm where he's staying). Simon's American peers are, obviously, used to the rules and to my understanding, they don't find them unfair. But coming from another country offers me, my son and other oversea students the opportunity to see the law through the eyes of an outsider.
So who is in the right here?
In my part of the world, drinking has always been associated with fun - and not much more, really. But reports from the World Health Organisation don't leave much doubt "Alcohol has dependence-producing properties and the use of alcohol causes a large disease, social and economic burden in societies". Notice "The use". Is it about time that we start treating alcohol as a drug? A drug that we should protect our children (and ourselves) from?
On the one hand, I think that America has got it right. But as long as alcohol is not officially a drug, I find that both the government and society should put its trust in the concept of responsible drinking and change the law. I had promised myself not to be judgmental but think about it for a moment: According to federal law in America, you can legally buy a long gun (rifle or shot gun) 3 years before you can legally buy a beer. So why can't my son legally toast to his new life in the States with Champagne?
Sorry I couldn't help it.